Most talk of security in Central Asia these days revolves around what will happen in Afghanistan after 2014. The widespread expectation is that after U.S. and NATO combat forces withdraw from the country, leaving behind some smaller training/advising force, security will deteriorate in Afghanistan, with unpredictable -- but probably not good -- results for Central Asia. But most scenarios assume some sort of U.S./Western presence in Afghanistan post-2014, minimizing the potential for chaos in that country. But what if the U.S. pulls out altogether? After all, few expected that the U.S. would entirely pull out of Iraq, but after political negotiations broke down over the status of U.S. forces, that's what happened there. Couldn't the same thing happen in Afghanistan? And what would that mean for Central Asia?
That scenario is looking increasingly likely. The New York Times has reported that negotiations between the U.S. and Afghanistan governments are close to breaking down, and time is running out:
The United States and Afghanistan have reached an impasse in their talks over the role that American forces will play here beyond next year, officials from both countries say, raising the distinct possibility of a total withdrawal — an outcome that the Pentagon’s top military commanders dismissed just months ago.
American officials say they are preparing to suspend negotiations absent a breakthrough in the coming weeks, and a senior administration official said talk of resuming them with President Hamid Karzai’s successor, who will be chosen in elections set for next April, is, “frankly, not very likely.”
CSTO forces take part in the Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013 exercises in Chelyabinsk, Russia. (photos: MoD Russia, Kazakhstan)
The Collective Security Treaty Organization is holding its second-ever peacekeeping exercises, in Russia's Chelyabinsk region. About 2,500croops from all CSTO members -- Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- are taking part in the exercise, named "Unbreakable Brotherhood 2013," up from 950 in the previous year's drills
The scenario of the drill involved a conflict in the fictional CSTO member state of Uralia, and the peacekeepers were tasked with protecting a convoy of humanitarian aid from "extremists" trying to attack it. The peacekeeping forces provided air cover for the convoy using Mi-24 helicopters, set up checkpoints in the conflict zone and successfully apprehended some extremists who were trying to smuggle weapons.
The larger context of the drill, though, included fights over resources in the region and interethnic tension, giving some sense of the circumstances in which the CSTO imagines that these peacekeeping forces might someday be used:
The situation was based on a possible scenario of events that may occur in CSTO collective security regions in view of the rising tensions between leading global powers and military political unions, an escalation of interethnic contradictions and the fight for energy resources.
The parties in conflict tried to reach their political and strategic goals using political means and military force. The conflict had been started due to historical territorial, interethnic and religious contradictions as well as economic ones.
The tensions had been fueled primarily due to social and economic reasons, the rising interference of international terrorist and extremist organizations, and tensions in interethnic relations.
Pakistan's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani meets Kazakhstan's minister of defense, Adilbek Dzhaksybekov, in Astana last month (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
With a handful of recent visits by senior Pakistani officials to Central Asia, is Islamabad looking to step up its security cooperation in the region?
Pakistani's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani visited Tajikistan in August and Kazakhstan in September. The topics of discussion in Tajikistan included "development of military and technical cooperation, preparation of staff, and economic components" while in Kazakhstan they were "issues of regional security and the situation in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of troops of NATO and USA in 2014." And an adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Sartaj Aziz, visited Bishkek in September for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.
The limited Pakistani engagement with Central Asia has for the most part been associated with economic issues: the proposed Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline, the CASA-1000 energy project, the development of the Gwadar port.
So does all this recent political-military activity add up to anything? A commentary in the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post says, yes:
Why this renewed focus on defence leadership’s exchanges with [the Central Asian republics], where Pakistan’s main interest, exhibited so far, remains economic and energy-oriented? The visits have a clear message: Islamabad values the role of CARs in post-withdrawal stability of Afghanistan, and resultantly the region as a whole....
Gate of the Ayni air base outside Dushanbe. (photo: The Bug Pit)
Now that Russia has solidified its control of its military base in Tajikistan, it is looking to expand. A Russian parliamentary delegation in Tajikistan is starting negotiations on use of the Ayni air base, whose future occupancy has been the source of much speculation. As an air base, Ayni would complement the land forces base of the 201st Motorized Rifle Division that is based in Tajikistan. "Signing of an additional agreement on the Ayni air force base, which Moscow also intends to rent and to consider part of the 201st military base, is expected," according to a report in Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gaezta, citing Russian government and military officials. Russian officials indicated several months ago that they intended to do this; now it seems like the effort has begun in earnest.
After Russian President Vladimir Putin met his Tajikistan counterpart Emomali Rahmon at the Collective Security Treaty Organization summit last month in Sochi, he promised unspecified "support" of Rahmon in Tajikistan's upcoming presidential elections. And it was that pledge that prompted the recent moves to ratify the 201st base deal and also to start negotiations on Ayni, Nezavisimaya Gaezta writes.
And Russia considers an air base in the country necessary to support Russian and CSTO military activities in Tajikistan to strengthen the border with Afghanistan, especially since Uzbekistan is refusing to cooperate with Russian efforts in the region and has effectively blockaded Tajikistan.
The lower house of Tajikistan's parliament approved the ratification of the deal to extend the presence of Russia's military base through 2042. It now only awaits approval by the upper house of parliament, the last step in a process that started a year ago today when the two countries' presidents signed the base extension deal. Rahmon appears to have dragged out the process of ratification, probably trying to get a better deal. That doesn't seem to have happened, though.
The ratification passed easily, by a 57-2 vote, and Tajikistan officials said the deal would help protect Tajikistan. MP Sukhrob Sharipov said the deal would ensure security "not only in Tajikistan but in the region as a whole." And defense minister Sherali Khayrulloyev pointed out that Russia has provided Tajikistan with over $400 million in military aid since 2005.
Turkey's American and NATO allies have not responded well to the announcement that Turkey plans to buy an air defense system from China, bypassing American and European systems.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters: "We, of course, have conveyed our serious concerns about the Turkish government’s contract discussions with a U.S. sanctioned company for a missile defense system that will not be interoperable with NATO systems or collective defense capabilities. Our discussions will continue." (The Chinese manufacturer of the winning system, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp., is under U.S. sanctions for doing business with Iran, but it seems unlikely that is Washington's real issue with the deal.) And the U.S. ambassador to Turkey added: "Turkey is a NATO ally. When we see the need for its defense we act as an ally and we are going to do that for as long as we are allies... We hope you will choose a NATO compatible system so that you will have the best air defense system in the world.”
And officials who spoke anonymously were significantly more negative. From Defense News:
“How could Turkey, protected by NATO assets, ignore the alliance’s concerns and opt for an air defense system to be built by a non-friendly country?” asked a NATO defense attaché in Ankara....
The risk of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is increasing and international meditors need to step up efforts to make sure that conflict doesn't arise in the "coming weeks and months," says the International Crisis Group in a new report.
The report (pdf), Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks, argues that internal tension in both Baku and Yerevan could cause a small conflict on the border -- which occur nearly constantly -- to spiral into a full-fledged war. In Azerbaijan, presidential elections will be held next month, and Armenia's recent abrupt announcement that it is joining Russia's Customs Union has thrown that country's political scene into turmoil, the report argues. This, combined with the arms both sides (but especially Azerbaijan) have been acquiring, could be a deadly mixture, the ICG argues: "Confrontation, low-intensity but volatile, between Azerbaijan and Armenia has entered a period of heightened sensitivity. The ICG "does not predict a second war is either imminent or more likely than not. It does suggest the near-term threats to stability are becoming more acute... Vigorous international engagement is needed to lessen chances of violent escalation during coming weeks and months."
Asked about the $1 billion Russian military aid package,, Omuraliyev didn't specify exactly what sort of equipment would be given, but said the priority would be in getting equipment that would work together as a system. "For example, there is a need for an air surveillance system, ground surveillance, special operations battle management systems that all make up a single complex and together complement one another," he said. "I can't now say exactly how many tanks, airplanes or helicopters we will get, but I can verify that they will be weapons systems which allow us to significantly strengthen our military capabilities. And he added that the equipment may not be straight off the production line: "We should remember that 'new' could also mean equipment produced earlier but kept in warehouses... which still fulfill current requirements."
The Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, just chosen by Turkey. (photo: Jian Kang, Wikimedia Commons)
Turkey has chosen a Chinese air defense system over Russian, American, and European competitors, apparently prioritizing business concerns over the wishes of its allies. Reports Hurriyet Daily News:
Ankara has granted a long-awaited tender for long-range missile and air defense systems to Chinese contenders, dismissing bids from major NATO allies as the United States, France and Italy.
With the decision, announced today following a meeting of the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries' executive council, which is headed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ankara has approved the lowest offer despite worries about the Chinese system’s ultimate compatibility with NATO-owned early warning assets.
The Chinese offer of the HQ-9, at $3 billion, was significantly cheaper than the competing U.S. Patriot, Russian S-400, and French-Italian Eurosam Samp-T systems. And perhaps more importantly, China was willing to co-produce the HQ-9 together with Turkey, a key factor for Ankara, which places a high priority on building up its own defense industry.
When Turkey became a "dialogue partner" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization last year, and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the SCO was a viable alternative to the European Union, it made a lot of waves and renewed speculation about what this meant with respect to Turkey's geopolitical drift to the East. As a result of last week's SCO summit in Bishkek, it looks like the answer to that last question is: not much.
It turns out that Turkey wasn't even invited to participate in the summit, according to a report in Today's Zaman. The report talks to a number of Turkish foreign policy analysts who point out that Turkey's foreign policies conflict in some pretty substantial ways with those of the SCO.
To take China, the SCO's dominant member, there is the question of Xinjiang, home of the restive minority Uyghur population, with which Turkey shares many language and cultural ties. While China has made it quite clear that among the top security goals of the SCO is to clamp down on Uyghur political activities in Central Asia, Erdogan has at times sharply criticized Beijing for its treatment of the Uyghurs.